Sermon – 3 before Advent 2022.
We are solidly back in the season of Unsettling Scriptural Readings, aren’t we? As we move towards Advent Sunday and the beginning of the new church year, the readings become increasingly apocalyptic and concerned with the last things – an emphasis which will, of course, only increase once we are in Advent itself. And yet, even the readings which we have heard this morning, which focus on the Resurrection – that teaching which is the source of all our hope – manage to be deeply unsettling. Even the otherwise intensely hopeful and positive reading from Job – and you know things are interesting when Job is the straightforward one – finishes in most lectionaries, curiously, with the line “my heart faints.”
We might perhaps feel that our Gospel reading, which combines the usual knock-about fun of Jesus dealing with smart-aleck critics with teaching on the Resurrection, ought not to be unsettling. But in many ways it is.
How often – if we think about the life of the world to come at all – do we assume that it will be just like this life, but with the unpleasantnesses removed? Just after the Queen’s death, anyone who was using social media (or reading local papers) saw a rash of drawings showing Her Majesty reunited with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh – which said a lot about popular imaginings of heaven. Heaven is a delightful place with lovely flowers where you are reunited with your loved ones. Mind you, I have to admit I’m still not entirely sure about the precise eschatological significance of Paddington Bear.
This is, of course, not new, and I don’t think the idea of wanting to see one’s beloveds – whether or not they are members of one’s family in a biological or legal sense – again really needs much explanation; nor is it, exactly, wrong to hope for given the doctrine of the communion of saints. But nonetheless, the way we think about it is often wrong, and stops short of what Our Lord encourages us to look for.
Because while the Saducees are being smart-alecks who don’t fully understand the doctrine they’re trying to do a reductio ad absurdam on, they have, actually, shown the problems in some of our popular ways of thinking about the resurrection. If it’s just more of the same, then more of what same? It’s for this reason, of course, that the discussions you find repeatedly in mediaeval scholasticism, about that age we would all be in the general resurrection, both miss the point and are on to something. When is a person most themselves? In their vigorous youth? In sensible middle age? With all the benefits of age and experience? What about those who die in infancy? Wouldn’t it be peculiar if they never grew up? And yet, one could hardly grow up in eternity – so would they be resurrected as adults? But in what sense would they then be the same person as the three year old – or the three day old – who died so tragically young?
I think, though, that the mediaeval theologians had made the same mistake as the Saducees – though with less malign motives. The questions about age, and particularly the question about children, was not abstract speculation, but came out of real pastoral concern, and real pain. And yet, I think Our Lord’s answer would have been similar: you don’t understand yet, the life of the resurrection is a new thing, and it doesn’t work the same way.
We hope in the Resurrection – it is, as we are reminded when the terrors of this war break in on us, be they sickness or poverty or war or environmental breakdown or, simply and inescapably, death. But we cannot yet fully understand this.
Speculating about the mystery is perhaps – and with all due respect to the scholastic theologians – not the best approach. But it is, however, worth saying that pointing out that the Resurrection is different, and beyond, what we can imagine is absolutely not bad news, as we see if we turn back to the Gospel.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves who the Saducees were. They are the religious party closely aligned with the temple authorities. They’re completely different to the Pharisees, who were a group of radical revivalists who were trying to help ordinary people live in closer alignment with the Law; the Saducees, on the other hand, are sitting in Jerusalem being basically pretty happy with the status quo. The religious system is working well for them, and they are prosperous and happy. The hope of resurrection – which as our reading from Job reminds us is also a cry for justice and a hope that God will vindicate the poor and oppressed – is just a joke to them, because they fell happy and blessed right now.
And so, in some ways, what’s most telling about the question that the Saducees as is that they assume that not just all existing relationships will carry over, but that human structures of power – and dare I say the patriarchy? – will carry over too. The question about the woman with multiple husbands is not asked out of pastoral concern for this poor woman who had endured being widowed seven times. They don’t ask “who is this woman’s real husband?”, they ask “whose wife will she be?” In fact, we might translate “Whose woman will she be?”, because the same Greek word, gyne, is used for both. But when we put it as bluntly as that, we can perhaps see why it is, indeed, good news, that Jesus reacts by simply dismissing the terms of the question.
Because the kingdom of heaven is not like that. She is not “so and so’s woman”, she is like the angels, she is a child of the resurrection and a child of God. She belongs to God, and to no-one else.
When we imagine the life of the world to come as being too like this life, it’s easy to, without questioning, smuggle along all our assumptions about who is more important, and who is less important. It’s easy to mock some of the more crude instances of this – I’ve seen pictures of the kingdom of Heaven in magazines put out by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that make 1950s advertisements look like grim social realism – all white picket fences and happy girls with pigtails and boys in short trousers. But I think we are all prone to fall into it, in one way or another. But the problems of this world are more than skin deep – the impulses of selfishness and possessiveness run deep in all of us, one way or another, and although the Christian life is supposed to be an ascetic one, in which we work, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, on cutting out those impulses, they’re a bit like bindweed – you think you’ve done quite well, and then suddenly they’re entwined in everything again. We are all tempted to power, we are all tempted to grab and cling on to things or people – and generally we find when we do that we have destroyed what we were trying to cling on to. You cannot force love.
But the Kingdom of Heaven is not like that at all. “Who’s woman will she be in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Whose woman will I be, whose woman or man will you be?
The good news is, we will be who we were created to be.
We will be children of the Resurrection. We will be, always and forever God’s.